Your Technology Might Be Good, but Your People Better Be Better
In a time when we are being overwhelmed by apps that promise everything, the critical piece is having a motivated work force that can deliver the whole experience.
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I'm really discouraged with the underlying quality and delivery problems of the vast majority of the new on-demand services. Too many startups are killing the golden goose before it can even get a chance to start growing. There's a lesson here for everyone. Regardless of how cheap and plentiful the labor force may be, or how receptive the market is to trying new ideas, you can only rely on novelty (and on "buying" loyalty with discounts and other breaks) for a limited amount of time if the underlying fundamental value of the service isn't there or if the service consistently fails to meet the realistic expectations of the customers.
The new app adoption curve is high, assuming anyone can find a new app amidst the noise and clutter, but the abandonment curve--how quickly we dump or discard these new offerings-- is 10 times steeper and only getting worse. The still-born IPO of Blue Apron last week is merely the latest indicator that "buying" customers with promotions and marketing dollars is an expensive and ultimately futile way to build a real and sustainable business. The people on Main Street who ultimately have to pay for these things are a lot less interested in hype and broken promises than the hustlers on Wall Street, who are trying to sell shares in these "story" stocks to the newest suckers. But that's another story for another day.
And, to be clear, I'm not blaming the apps themselves for the poor service and outcomes to date. If it's a smart and productive app, with a useful and well-designed interface, and you have a decent plan to get it out there to the market, then I'm all for it. (See Want Your App to Succeed? Get It Out There.) At the same time, I think in general that the apex of apps is upon us and, in recent posts, I've done more than my share of dumping on the future prospects for the app economy. (See We Have Reached Peak Apps.)
However, the real problem now isn't that we are drowning in new apps or that the apps are crap. It's the people behind the apps who are increasingly the problem. Not the coders. They're just fantasists building the slick front doors and fancy interfaces for the apps. Not the marketers. They're just lying about the efficacy and consistency of the underlying services, but it's likely (unlike car salesmen) that they don't necessarily know they're lying. And it's not even the young entrepreneurs who have never had to deal with the day-to-day realities of getting ordinary worker bees (and, worse yet, gig workers of all ages) to clean up, show up, buck up, and do their jobs the right way, all day, each and every day.
Here's the truth: You can't scale with slugs and snails. If you're in a "hurry up" business in today's economy of now, (and who isn't) you can't build your operation and scale it with indifferent people. (See Why "Whatever" Will Sink Your Business.) This is the hard lesson that we're learning every day in the everything-on-demand economy. It's easy to build an app that lets people ask for anything-- it's really hard to field a team of trained and talented people that delivers the required service and support every day. And this is a big challenge for companies that are mounting and launching product and service delivery businesses based, not primarily on their tech, but on the people they rely upon to get the job done. It only looks easy from the outside.
Almost none of the entrepreneurs I'm seeing even has a path to a viable solution because they don't realize how hard it is to motivate people and, more particularly, to keep doing it each and every day. Motivation is exactly like bathing. Whether you like it or not, if you don't make it your business to do it daily, pretty soon your body and your business will start to stink. And, here's another flash: by and large, none of these folks care about the business or the company you're building. They mainly care about themselves. And, if you think you're gonna get them to simply sign up for your sacred crusade and walk through walls for the greater good with sweet talk and option grants, forget it. The "right now" economy works for them as well - they want to know what it is that you're doing for them (and paying them for) right now.
You need a strategy and a solution that speaks to them about them - their interests, their needs and their objectives. You won't be able to "sell" them anything, but you can show them plenty and help them to understand. It's all about PROPS.
My particular PROPS are Pride, Respect, Ownership, Power, and Style. If you want your people to commit and put their hearts and souls into their work, you need to help them understand that, in the end, it's all about them and the choices they make. To work well for you, their work has to also work for them: (a) they've got to like themselves, (b) they've got to like what they're doing, and (c) they've got to like how they're doing it. You can help them in this discovery and education process, but you can't push them. These are "new" collar jobs and they require some adjustments on everyone's part.
The process always starts from the same point: any job can be a creative and satisfying endeavor if you put some thought and energy into making it one. Anything you routinely do in an unthinking stupor will eventually bore you out of your mind.
Here are a few ideas to share with your people to help them get to the right place:
Pride. No one comes to work to do a decent job. Everyone wants to get better. And no one is hired to sit around and eat chocolate cake all day either. It's important for all team members to be proud of their work and to understand that work makes a difference. People never forget how you make them feel. You should appreciate and recognize effort, but ultimately the respect and the rewards need to go to the ones who deliver the demonstrable results. Your business should be built on your people's pride in their exacting execution and consistent craftsmanship.
Respect. You will never go wrong betting on the best in your people. If you don't respect your people, you shouldn't expect much from them in return. Make it clear that no job is too small or so unimportant that it's not worth doing well and that no job is beneath anyone. Everyone is there to get the work done and expected to help. In some cases, it may not be the best (or highest) use of someone's time to pitch in, but it's always important to the company's culture that the underlying message be delivered. You're all in the boat together, sink or swim.
Ownership. It's critical that each team member takes ownership of and responsibility for making their job into something worth doing and then getting their particular job done as well as it can be done. Nothing in business today is more critical than careful measurement combined with strict accountability. Without effective, real-time measurement, it's not really possible to keep score. Especially in creative businesses, getting the most out of people isn't necessarily getting the best out of them. Your main metrics have to be rigorously aligned with your mission. You owe it to the best of your people to make sure that when it matters the most, you'll know exactly who measured up and got the job done.
Power. A shared and noble goal is an enormous source of power. An important purpose that is understood and adopted by all is a more effective driver of any desired behavior than rules, regulations or any other exercises of simple power. Ideas may bring people together, but it's ideals that hold them together. When new people enter a culture with a powerful work ethic, it quickly becomes their norm. Being surrounded by people on the same path as you makes you up your own game. Enthusiasm and pride are both highly contagious and informed enthusiasm (not blind faith) is not only a force multiplier, it's one of the most powerful engines of success.
Style. How you do the job is almost as important as the job you do. Attitude trumps aptitude in today's collaborative and team-based businesses and determines your altitude as well. You want to be the one that everyone knows they can count on in a pinch. (See How to Succeed? Be the One Everyone Can Count On) A different world can't be built by indifferent people. You can work with someone to improve their skills and make them better, and that is almost always worth the investment, but there's no cure for a lousy attitude and the sooner you remove the problem, the better. Not giving a damn doesn't make them bad people; it just makes them bad for your company.
Bottom line: successfully building and scaling a business has always been (and will always be) about the quality, commitment and the talents of the people you're able to attract and retain - at every level of the company - as you grow. There's no standard handbook, approved organizational structure, or simple set of rules and instructions that you can rely upon because every new business is unique and no one's been exactly where you're headed. But you'll never succeed by yourself so the main goal is to find other strong people to join you who are willing to help set the course, steer the ship, and counsel the crew as the journey progresses. They need to have two specific qualities above all: highly motivated to do something important and never satisfied with what they've accomplished to date.